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Dave Wood's Book Report, Dec. 17, 2008

Still looking for last minute holiday gifts for hard-to-buy friends and relatives? I've got a few that just came across my desk in time for you to run out and buy a copy.

Books, you know, are easy to wrap.

If you get stuck with a batch of apples, you make applesauce. That's what a longtime acquaintance of mine did when the newspaper where he served as book review editor closed down its book review section.

Nick Basbanes was middle-aged and the prospects were glum. But Basbanes put his shoulder to the wheel and pushed hard.

First he self-syndicated a book review column and then he began researching like mad.

His first book out of the chute was "A Gentle Madness," for which he earned a nomination for best non-fiction book by the National Book Critics Circle. It's a fine book about book collecting and its attendant madness.

Several books followed and now he's out with "A World of Letters," by Nicholas A. Basbanes (Yale University Press, n.p.), a history of Yale University Press on the occasion of the prestigious publisher's 100th birthday.

Bibliophiles like Basbanes will love to read the inside story on how a great academic press has operated.

Have an inspiring writer in the family? Try "The Virginia Woolf Writer's Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing," edited by Danell James (Bantam, $14), just out in paperback. I reviewed this book years ago when it came out in hardcover.

Now it's out at a very affordable price and is must anyone who aspires to writing.

I'm not much for state fairs. Too big. Too noisy. Too commercial. Give me a county fair any day.

That's why I liked a new book out from the University of Wisconsin, "Purebred & Homegrown: America's County Fairs," by Drake Hokanson and Carol Kratz (Terrace Books,$29.95 paper).

It's chock full of color photos, a lively text and makes many references to county fairs all over the country without excluding Wisconsin and Minnesota. Pass the pronto pups!

New Ulm author, illustrator and Newbery winner Wanda Gag just won't go away.

She has been dead for years but now she's out with "Three Gay Tales from Grimm" (University of Minnesota Press, $14.95 cloth), which include three long unpublished stories, including "The Clever Wife," "The Three Feathers," and "Goose Hans."

It's popular these days to turn culinary icons into serious and also entertaining cultural anthropology.

Such a book is "The Hamburger," by Josh Ozarks, food editor of New York Magazine (Yale University Press, $22).

It's a story of how the delicious hamburg steak was transformed into a sandwich, which was later transformed into a Styrofoam mess that dominates our culture. In short, it's a story about the United States.

Years ago, the Star Tribune brought two New York Jewish deli owners to the Twin Cities to record their reactions to Minnesota's version of Jewish delis.

With a few exceptions, like Cecil's in St. Paul, the New Yorkers were appalled at the quality and quantity of many delis.

They were especially surprised at how small our bagels are and how little cream cheese we serve with them. I agree.

One of my first stops when I reach New York is to drop into a restaurant for a giant bagel and schmear. Delicious!

Read about the bagel and its history in "The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread," by Maria Balinska (Yale University Press, $24).

My mother cooked almost exclusively from church cookbooks. She didn't own a James Beard. Julia Child? She'd never heard of her. But she had cookbooks from every church in the county and she personally knew every recipe author who belonged to those churches.

Now Rae Katherine Eighmey and Debbie Miller have compiled recipes from similar churches and homemakers in "Potluck Paradise: Favorite Fare from Church & Community Cookbooks (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $16.95 paper).

This is history at its finest and sometimes weirdest. Some of the recipes are great; others I'm glad my mother missed when she was leafing through her collection.

I especially refer to the recipe that calls for adding a can of condensed tomato soup to cake batter, for that pinkish sheen you want in your loaf cake!

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Call him at 715.426.9554.